Tune In to the First Women's Hockey League Championship This Weekend

The Buffalo Beauts' Shelby Bram is battling for the first National Women's Hockey League championship this weekend. Buffalo Beauts

It's been over 80 years since Buffalo has had a professional hockey championship team. The Buffalo Bisons, formerly of the International Hockey League, took home the title twice—in 1932 and 1933. The team was eventually folded into the American Hockey League—a farm league to the NHL—and was disbanded once the Sabres were made Buffalo's official NHL team in 1970. Though they've boasted some of hockey's greatest players, the Buffalo Sabres have never won the Stanley Cup. But starting Friday, a talented team of women could give the city a chance to end their hockey championship drought.

On Friday, the Buffalo Beauts took on the Boston Pride in the first championship series of the National Women's Hockey League. The Pride beat the Beauts in overtime by a score of 4-3 and will have a chance to take the title if they win Game 2 of the best-of-three series Saturday. The Beauts and the Pride are two of the four teams comprising the NWHL, along with the Connecticut Whale and the New York Riveters. "Every goal, every breakaway, every exciting play is just as good as a play in the NHL," Brayton Wilson, the play-by-play broadcaster for the Beauts' home games, tells Newsweek. "The talent playing in the NWHL is top-tier."

Players like Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan, Megan Bozek, Emily Pfalzer and Kelli Stack, all of whom previously played at the highest collegiate levels or in international competitions like the Olympics, have helped make a name for U.S. women's hockey.

After watching the USA women's hockey team's epic battle for gold against Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (which the U.S. narrowly lost, in overtime), it was clear to NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan, a former college hockey player herself, that America was ready for a professional women's league. "The gold medal match was the most watched game on NBC," Rylan tells Newsweek. "A lot of people watching that game didn't realize they were watching a women's game until the camera would zoom in on the players' ponytails. I think people realized, 'Wow, this game has gotten so fast and so physical... Wouldn't it be great if women had someplace to play after college?'"

Rylan is proudly behind the first women's league to actually pay its players. Each team has a salary cap of $270,000—a number that may seem low for professional sports. But Rylan felt it was necessary to start small, gaining the majority of funding from donors and sponsorships, and hopes to secure more markets as the league grows. Recognizing that the average $15,000-per-season salary isn't a living wage, the league only schedules games on Sundays to allow players to maintain other jobs, while also offering health insurance and giving players a 15 percent cut of merchandise sold bearing their name.

Though the season was a short 18 games, the teams were able to build up a substantial fan base. "The fans have been passionate and consistent," says Rylan. "One of the unique things is that our fans stay through the whole game and watch start to finish." She recalls being at a New York Riveters game when the home team was down 6-1, and being amazed at how the stands remained full to the very end. "For a New York team to be losing 6-1 in the third period and for the fans to still be in the stands watching the whole handshake line, waiting to get their favorite players' autographs after the game, really goes to show the level of commitment we have from our fan base. And a large part of that is the accessibility we give our fans to the players." Many of those fans are young girls, some of whom are now able to envision a real future where professional hockey is an option.

Leah Voit, a Buffalo native (and, full disclosure, my cousin), has been a hockey fan her entire life, so I gauged her interest in the league. "Buffalo is an amazing hockey city, even when we stink," she tells me. "But the fact that women have the chance to bring us a championship is like a dream come true. I always wanted to play hockey when I was little, and had there been a women's team here back then, I probably would have. The fact that young girls who play hockey now have women hockey players to look up to is huge."

The NWHL's inaugural season will wrap up this weekend as the Beauts face the Pride in the first Isobel Cup finals, held in Newark, New Jersey, at the Prudential Center Practice Facility. The prize gets its name from Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, a hockey lover who played in the first recorded women's game in 1899. Her passion for the game helped inspire her father, Lord Frederick Stanley, to begin a tradition of awarding the best amateur (and later, professional) hockey team in Canada with a prize known as—you guessed it—the Stanley Cup.